Doublethink and singlespeak for ‘don’t care about #Gaza’
Doublespeak degrades society’s collective faculties – of communication, clarity and compassion
Bright and early on Monday morning (October 23), in the third week of Israel’s bombing and besiegement of Gaza, Britain’s transport minister went about illustrating key Orwellian concepts with 21st century characteristics.
Mark Harper explained the British government’s view of soaring civilian casualties in Gaza because of Israel’s fierce bombing campaign. More than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the past fortnight, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
The statistics did not seem to faze Mr Harper, or indeed, to affect him at all. In fact, he seemed imperturbable in his interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain. Have a listen, if you can. The questions about the Middle East start at 2:39:38. In case you don’t or can’t listen for yourself, here is a telling fragment:
“The prime minister set out very clearly in the meetings he had last week with leaders in the region…that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself against the attack by Hamas…and it is important to do that defence proportionately and to protect civilians in Gaza, who are just as much victims of Hamas.”
Pressed on whether civilians in Gaza were really being protected by Israel, Mr Harper said that his boss, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had made clear “…the need to behave in a way that follows international law…Israel will strive to do so and will aim to do so…that’s the difference between a country like Israel and Hamas. Hamas deliberately kills civilians, Israel strives to protect them and does everything it can to minimise casualties as it takes action against Hamas. Inevitably, in conflict, there will be civilians that are impacted”.
When the interviewer probed a bit further, Mr Harper said: “Israel is targeting and responding to the Hamas attack on it…that’s what it is focussed on”.
He concluded by repeating the key difference between Hamas, slayer-of civilians, saying “them and Israel, which we’re supporting in the way they’re responding”.
So what was Mr Harper and the government he represents really saying? In view of the sensitivities around the current situation in the Middle East, I consulted American linguist William Lutz’s writings. He’s considered an expert on doublespeak, which is to say he detects and deconstructs it. Just to be clear, doublespeak derives from two concepts in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Doublethink and Newspeak.
Offering guidance on how to spot doublespeak, Mr Lutz explains why the four kinds of this form of (mis)communication – euphemism, jargon, bureaucratese, inflated language – can be “insidious”. Doublespeak can, he says, “infect and destroy the function of language, which is communication between people and social groups”. The “corruption” of this function can have “serious and far-reaching consequences”, he warns, because it can become “the coin of the political realm”, with people starting to believe that politicians don’t lie, they just “misspeak”, that illegal acts are merely “inappropriate actions” and so on.
Clearly, doublespeak degrades society’s collective faculties – of communication, clarity and compassion.
It’s worth considering if some of that is already happening. Why else would a British cabinet minister go on national radio and blandly state that the rising civilian death toll in a territory subject to sustained bombing by its occupier nation shows the following: that the country doing the bombing is striving to protect civilians and making every attempt to minimise casualties?
Postscript: In parliament, later that same day, Prime Minister Sunak was asked by Vicky Ford, an MP of his own Conservative Party, how Israel’s compliance with international law will be monitored and whether, if Israel broke international law by collectively punishing Gaza, it would be held to account. Mr Sunak’s reply was a masterpiece of doublespeak. He said he was reassured during his “conversations” on his recent trip to the Middle East that Israel intends to follow international law. He gave no indication of when it might follow through on those intentions and whether it would be in time to save at least some civilian lives in Gaza.